Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1972.
It was a time of flared jeans, of the Vietnam war, of hippies and discos and soulful music.
Sir Henry Bolte and then Rupert Hamer were the Premiers of Victoria, Gough Whitlam became the Prime Minister of Australia, the first Labor Prime Minister since 1949, and swimmer Shane Gould was awarded Australian of the Year.
Access to legal recompense was generally reserved for those with money, those who could afford the costly expense of legal representation.
A radical program of social justice and protest, which started in the 1960s was continuing and awareness of the impact of laws on communities and access to justice for citizens often denied a voice was increasing.
But against this backdrop, in the early seventies, a movement for social change was growing. In pockets across Victoria, young lawyers were gathering to discuss how they could affect change and make legal representation more accessible to more people, hoping to realise 'fair and equitable' legislation for even the most marginalised Victorians.
A group of Monash University students and academics hit on the idea of offering legal assistance via a phone line to those who needed it. What started as a phone advice line became the Springvale Monash Legal Service, now providing legal services and social justice advocacy across the south-east of Melbourne under the name South-East Monash Legal Service.
Across town, a group of lawyers took it upon themselves to do the unthinkable. They started providing free legal advice to those seeking legal recourse in the basement of the Fitzroy Town Hall. Fitzroy Legal Service opened its doors just weeks after Gough Whitlam was sworn in as Prime Minister.
In St Kilda, a similar service was beginning to evolve. Almost half a century after the first advice session, St Kilda Legal Service has recently launched a fresh new identity as Southside Justice.
The three organisations were the first non-Aboriginal Legal Services operating in Australia, following Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service which opened its doors in 1970. The first Aboriginal Legal Service in Victoria, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service Co-operative Limited (VALS) was also established as a community-controlled Co-operative Society in 1973.
Beyond providing legal support for those who needed it, those first Community Legal Centres shared a desire for social justice and early advocacy focused on greater rights and equality for all Victorians.
Over the years, Community Legal Centres have fought for and helped win many legal rights for Victorians including mandatory third-party motor vehicle insurance, increasing awareness of and support for victim survivors of family violence, and advocating for prisoner rights.
More recently, Community Legal Centres have advocated for the rights of tenants in public housing caught in snap lockdowns in Melbourne, for better protection for Victorians against scams, for better tenancy arrangements for renters, and for waiving COVID-19 fines issued to young people.
Justice for All, A History of the Victorian Community Legal Centre movement, written to celebrate 40 years of Community Legal Centres, states that while “success is hard to measure and injustice still abounds, there is no doubt that over the past 40 years Community Legal Centres have expanded possibilities for justice and recognised the legal needs of people previously excluded from the benefits of the law”.
“Poor people; young people victimised and criminalised by police; people with mental health issues; people with disabilities; migrants; refugees; prisoners; and women routinely positioned outside the circle of the law’s protection: all of these have an important place in the CLC story.”
And 10 years later, as we start celebrations for 50 years of Community Legal Centres in Victoria and Australia, those words are as relevant now as they were back then.
There are now more than 170 Community Legal Centres and Aboriginal Legal Services operating across Australia, including 47 in Victoria. Today, you can find Community Legal Centres that are place-based, providing services across a range of legal issues to a geographic community, and specialist legal centres that focus on specific areas of law (such as tenancy, consumer action or employment) or cohorts of people (such as women, young people, asylum seekers or people living with disability).
But the cornerstone of social justice continues to define the sector. Community Legal Centres continue to work together and with social and health sector partners to champion justice and equality for all Victorians, while pushing for more equitable laws and more accountable government and democracy.
From those humble beginnings, 4,000 staff and volunteers at Community Legal Centres across Victoria now provide more than 100,000 legal services every year for Victorians who face economic and social disadvantage, who cannot afford legal representation and are not eligible for legal aid.
This year we will be celebrating the sector’s 50-year anniversary.
We hope you will join us in recognising this important achievement.
For more information, contact [email protected]